Wednesday, 9 September 2015

How future technologies can revolutionise farming

Future technology and the opportunities it presents for farmers was the centrepiece of discussion at AHDB’s Smart Agriculture conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham.

As well as looking at some of the latest agricultural technology currently available, the Smart Ag event on Tuesday (September 8) was an opportunity for our industry to peek over the fence to see what others are doing. How some have embraced robotics was frankly staggering.

From robot bees that could pollinate flowers in the face of declining numbers of real bees, to fruit-penetrating lasers which could sense damaged fruit, there was some real food for thought as to how intelligent machinery could enhance agriculture.


Although beef and lamb production were not specifically covered, the idea of Smart Ag was to exhibit the scope of available technology so that it could be considered by the entire farming industry.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh, Director of Research and Innovation at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, was the keynote speaker. Professor Sukkarieh develops robotic devices and intelligent systems that can operate around the clock, throughout the year, outdoors. These devices can perceive and understand their environment, make informed decisions and carry out subsequent actions – all without direct human input.

Prof Salah Sukkarieh
Already he and his colleagues have designed a 100 tonne automated straddle carrier that moves shipping containers around docks in Australia 24/7. They are also working with a mining company to develop technology that will enable them to operate an entire mine remotely from the far side of the country.

Recently Prof Sukkarieh’s team turned its attention to agriculture. It worked with a farm in Australia to create a pilotless robotic aircraft that can detect and spray invasive weeds in remote locations. The team is also midway through developing autonomous devices that will perform many of the manual tasks involved in large scale pruning, thinning, harvesting, mowing spraying and weeding.

So, does the technology work effectively? Well, the farm is the size of Luxemburg and it’s operated by one man, so it’s fair to say yes.

Another speaker was Dr Jordan Boyle, a lecturer from the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds. Dr Boyle talked about his passion for combining biology and robotics, and said that already progress was being made with life-based technology such as Spot the robotic dog, which can move around at speed in a number of environments and adapt to change.

Dr Jordan Boyle
Perhaps the most important part of Smart Ag was the networking session which encouraged the tech wizards and speakers to engage with the farming industry representatives, so that discussions about industry and on-farm problems could be shared with those who seek to solve all matter of complications with technology.

There was a simple but effective Post It Note wall which proved popular, where delegates could leave their contact details and find those of other attendees. It’s possible that the resulting conversations will sow digital seeds that could change the future of the industry.

The Post It Note wall
AHDB Chairman Peter Kendall summed it up in his welcome notes when he said that farming is on the ‘cusp of a revolution’ as the way in which we manage the environment and the way we produce food will become ever more reliant on precision technologies.

Peter Kendall opens SmartAg
If that is the case it’s important to ensure that we are well placed for it, and Smart Ag was the ideal starting point.